Thursday, July 26, 2007

Cesar Chavez and Unions

No Cesar Chavez
Leo Casey

As an undergraduate in the early 1970s, I attended Antioch College, a great institution of education in the John Dewey mold of learning by doing. This is a distinction I share with some notable activists in the field of education [Deborah Meier and Bill Bigelow of Rethinking Schools] and teacher unionism [the late, sorely missed Tom Mooney of the Cincinnati and Ohio Federation of Teachers and Mark Simon, currently director of the Institute for Teacher Union Leadership]. There was something about the Antioch experience that set us all off on remarkably similar life journeys.

Antioch is apparently in its last days, barring a miraculous resurrection. Its departure will leave American education all that much more poorer. In an age when some conservatives are engaged in thoughtless assaults on the very idea of an education committed to social change, Antioch continued to proudly wear the motto of Horace Mann, its founder and a pivotal figure in the emergence of American public education — “Be ashamed to die until you have won some visctory for humanity.” Antioch led the way in admitting women and African-American students into its student body and its faculty, well before the Civil War.

One of Antioch’s distinctive features from the Depression era presidency of Arthur Morgan until a decade ago was a work-study program, in which one studied for six months of the calendar year and worked for the other six months in a field related to your studies. My second six month job, as a 19 year old young man, was working with Cesar Chavez’s United Farmworkers [UFW] in California. It was there that I first learned, in a way that book learning itself could simply not convey, the centrality of trade unionism in the struggle for human dignity and social justice. It was my first schooling in the techniques of organizing, as Chavez was a very able student of the famous Saul Alinsky, but it was much more: it was an introduction into the great untapped potential of ordinary working men and women as agents of progressive social change, once they were 0rganized. I went to the UFW an anti-Vietnam War activist of the Catholic Left, attracted by Chavez’s dedication to non-violence in the tradition of Martin Luther King, and I left with an immeasurably enrichened and broader understanding of the world.

Antioch was also one of the first testing grounds of my parent’s remarkable patience with their son’s political activism. They were awoken in the middle of one night, about 3 AM New York City time, to be told that I was in a California hospital, having been hitten over the head and knocked out cold while canvasing for the UFW. But don’t worry, the caller told them, he will be okay. My mother slept not another wink, and called sick into her job in a Bushwick elementary school the next day — for which she received some less than supportive comments from the officious school principal. Some things never change.

I offer this little autobiographical sketch of a moment in my life as an explanatory preface to the fact that one of the more powerful moments of my UFW experience was seeing Cesar Chavez in action, up close, a number of times. I can still recall a moment at a staff meeting at the La Paz union headquarters in the California desert where Chavez took on, directly and without the slightest equivocation, a Chicano narrow nationalist who suggested that there was no place for non-Chicanos in La Causa. The UFW was a multi-racial institution of all working people, Chavez responded, and so long as he was its leader, it would never turn one race against another, set up one ethnic group in opposition to the next. Anyone willing to assume the conditions of all UFW staff [which could only be described as a form of extreme voluntary poverty] was welcome in its ranks. I also recall how Chavez would join us, as we spent hours holding signs on freeways — the UFW’s answer to the grower bought advertising — to convince voters to reject a ballot referendum designed to destroy the UFW. No organizing task was below him.

This moment came back to me when I read this remarkable post from Mike Klonsky’s Small Talk, “Chavez and DuBois Rolling In Their Graves?” Klonsky provides a remarkably long list of charter schools that have assumed the name of Cesar Chavez, while denying their teachers the right to organize into an union. To borrow a somewhat worn turn of phrase, I knew Cesar Chavez and the members of the boards of trustees of these schools are no Cesar Chavez.

There is an incredibly thin, transparent veneer to the right wing rhetoric in education which seizes the mantle of the civil rights movement. The notion that Chavez would have given a moment of his day, much less his good name, to an anti-union institution is shameless.


Over at Eduwonk, Andy Rotherham thinks it is “preposterous” to suggest that unions have more of “a claim” on the legacy of Cesar Chavez than an anti-union Chicana daughter of migrant workers. But this is precisely the sort of shallow identity politics that Chavez so strongly opposed — the notion that one’s ethnic identity, one’s parentage, is more important than one’s substantive politics and one’s actual work in the world. Chavez’s unambiguous stand on this question was exactly the point of the anecdote I cited in the original post. The notion that Chavez would lend his name to an enterprise that opposes the right of its employees to organize into an union and bargain collectively, whether those employees be farmworkers or teachers, is one that can only rest on a complete misunderstanding of his life’s work for justice for all working people. The argument that he would have foregone the core principles of that life’s work simply because opposition to them came from a Chicana is beyond incredulous. There are also a great many teacher unionists of Latin American descent, including notable AFT leaders, who would take considerable exception to the notion that the union to which they belong is an “Anglo” institution.

Further, the notion that Chavez was a man whose principles could be bought for any amount of money, much less for $200,000 a year of AFT support for the United Farmworkers, is completely scurrilous. He led a life of great sacrifice for La Causa. Union solidarity may be a foreign concept to some, but in the AFT, it is a principle we hold dear — and that it why we have supported the UFW and other unions, when we could. We are proud of our solidarity work. That the claim of Chavez’s silence for money comes in the form of a report of a rumor of a personal conversation — none of it in the slightest verifiable — says just about everything that needs to be said on the subject.

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